A couple of weeks ago, Liz and I went to the movies. The movie we saw was, in our opinion, just so-so; but we enjoyed the popcorn, and the company, as always, was good. The film was Anonymous, which is basically about how Shakespeare didn’t really write all those plays attributed to him, and how they were “really” by Edward DeVere, the Earl of Oxford, a big shot at court from one of England’s leading family’s. (Who was also, according to the film, not only Elizabeth’s illegitimate son, but also her lover, and the father of her illegitimate child. Talk about a plot thickening—or in this case, perhaps, sickening.) So it was all, shall we say, quite sensational and convoluted. (It is, after all, by the same director who also gave us Independence Day and Godzilla, so perhaps we shouldn’t have been expecting nuance.). But Anonymous is, however, visually stunning, and the acting, overall, is excellent. Especially Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth, and Rafe Spall as an absolutely lecherous and devious William Shakespeare, a man who cannot even write his own name, let alone the greatest masterworks in all of English literature.
Now, the controversy over the “true” authorship of Shakespeare’s works is nothing new, of course (though it has seldom been presented as grandly, and expensively, as it has in Anonymous). Scholars have been puzzling for years over how someone as plebeian and under-educated as Shakespeare (if educated at all)—someone of whom historians know very little—who seemed to have made very little impact upon the world in which he lived, aside from the plays he (supposedly) wrote—how he could have written works like Hamlet, or Romeo and Juliet or King Lear—how he could have written anything at all of note.
So, for years some people have been saying that it just doesn’t make sense. Someone else—someone “better educated”-- someone “of better social standing”-- a more obvious choice must have done it—like DeVere, the Earl of Oxford, some say; or maybe Sir Francis Bacon; or another leading writer of the day, like Christopher Marlowe.
It all sort of reminds me of Shirley Maclaine, surveying the great ruins at Machu Picchu when they were adopting her book. Out on a Limb into a TV movie, saying that surely, surely everyday indigenous people, even those as advanced as the Incas, couldn’t have come up with something as amazingly advanced as Machu Picchu! It just wasn’t possible that native earthlings could have created anything as magnificent as that. So men from space must have done it instead! That made much more sense…
It all sounds more than a little elitist to me. We assume that everyday, ordinary people like us—or even (perish the thought) people less educated, of a “lower” socio-economic level than we are—could ever accomplish something truly extraordinary. No, we sometimes scoff, someone else must have done it.
I will admit that the question of “genius”, of creativity on steroids as it were, is an intriguing one. Where does genius come from? From whence does our human creativity arise? Why does it seem to flourish in certain places, certain people and circumstances, and not in others?
Those are questions I’ve asked myself often.
I’ve asked myself that as I had my photo snapped in front of a rather nondescript two-story tenement house at the corner of South and Institute streets in Freehold, New Jersey: the house where Bruce Springsteen grew up.
Certainly, while he was growing up there at 37½ Institute Street, Springsteen didn’t seem like he was going to become something to write home about. Most of the people he grew up among, his fellow students at the St. Rose of Lima parochial school across the street, barely remember Bruce Springsteen, if they remember him at all. He was, to most of them, a kind a gray blur, sort of on the fringes of things. He certainly didn't seem to excel in any aspect of school life; he barely got by; he sort of blended into the woodwork.
Yet, all this time he was blending into the woodwork, he was sitting upstairs in that back bedroom at of this totally unremarkable tenement house, strumming his guitar and writing music and dreaming about rock and roll. And nurturing a dream and a vision of who this scrawny, unkempt adolescent with bad complexion could be someday; and fostering, as best he was able, and in an environment that wasn't always conducive, the wellsprings of his own creativity-- which would, as the years passed, explode into genius, and transform the face of his chosen field, and turn that house into a kind of semi-shrine, at least for a particular little group of us.
It's a feeling I'd had before, and have had since-- standing in front of Oscar Wilde's birthplace in Georgian Dublin or that of the great Irish tenor John McCormick in County Laoise at almost the geographic center of Ireland, quite literally in the middle of nowhere. I’ve felt it strolling in front of the house where the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay was born, just down the street from where we lived in Rockland, Maine; in front of the little house in Prague where Kafka was born; at the Adams birthplaces in nearby Quincy; even as we drove by the small southern cottage in Plains, Georgia where Jimmy Carter spent his boyhood (a house that reminded me so much of my grandmother's little cottage in South Carolina).
Why, in these simple places—in these markedly unremarkable sorts of houses-- places no more architecturally significant or aesthetically pleasing-- no more intrinsically interesting, if the truth be told-- than the houses in which any of us grew up—why in these,
To find the source of human genius, let’s go back to the beginning: In the deepest and most fundamental sense, I think, our creativity arose at the Big Bang itself-- about 20 or 22 billion years ago. We are, each one of us, a Little Bang ushering forth from the Big Bang.
Creativity is something that is natural to all of us as human beings. It is part of our wiring. You can't be alive-- you can't be human-- and not be creative. Now, that certainly flies in the face of an elitist and consumerist culture which would tell us that creativity-- and genius-- and artistry--are all forces "outside of " ourselves-- beyond us-- bigger (or deeper) than we are; things that have to be produced by "superstars" and "celebrities" that the rest of us can only buy and consume.
In simpler cultures than ours, there is no great wall between everyday life and creativity, between everyday work and artistic expression. In simpler cultures (that of rural India for example), the ability to play a basic musical instrument; to sew; to tell stories; these are all but universal. Everyone just does these things, and no one judges who does it “better” than anyone else. In modern society, art and culture are too often seen as passive activities which bring us their images for us to internalize, rather than ushering forth the visions which are within us. We who live in industrial, urban societies have to make a conscious effort to develop the unconscious, mystical, right-brain aspects of who we are.
The great Indian philosopher Coomeraswamy once spoke of his mother, who was a gifted craftswoman, who created truly remarkable embroidery. But he said that she always insisted that her art be used as some part of everyday life, and not as something to be set aside, looked at, and merely admired. "I'm giving you this as a gift," she'd say. "But don't put it on the wall-- it's for you. I made it for you to wear. The day you start to put beautiful things on the wall, you will start to put ugly things on your body."
If we always see creativity as "outside ourselves", we'll neglect the wonderful creative aspects of our day in/day out living.
In a beautiful book called Painted Prayers, an art scholar named Stephen Hyler presents examples of the glorious artwork done by "ordinary" women in "ordinary" villages throughout southern India. Every day, Hyler writes, millions of women in India begin the day by sprinkling rice flour in a design in front of their homes, a visual prayer to the goddess Lakshimi, inviting her to bring prosperity to the people who dwell there. Of course, this painting is quickly scuffed away as people walk by and life passes over it. But the daily ritual honors the creative force within all of us; it reminds us that creativity is mostly about process, and not product; that it points us toward the great bridge that creativity creates between body and soul, between humanity and the divine.
We are each called to be artists of that sort, to engage the creative gift that lies within.
None of us here may be a Shakespeare or a Beethoven -- or even a Bruce Springsteen. But we all have precious gifts. We all have talents; we can all be creative in some way. Creativity is not linked only to certain spheres of living-- to the fine arts (say), or to writing literature or scientific or technological discovery. The psychologist Howard Gardner says that there is more than just one single kind of human intelligence; there are seven, Gardner says: linguistic, musical, logical, visual, bodily, intropersonal (that is, within a person), or interpersonal (or, between people).
Gardner says that we tend to think of creativity as existing in only certain kinds of intelligence, but there is the potential for creativity in all these kinds of activities—and that all of us are intelligent—above the norm, even gifted-- in at least one of these seven ways.
Great discoveries—great flowerings of genius -- are possible in all areas of human intelligence. We are all creative and can be ever more creative—maybe even especially in the so-called “routine” parts of our lives (that's where we spend most of our time, after all): We can shine the human-divine radiance of our creativity on how we cook meals for our families; how we encourage our children; how we negotiate disagreements at work; how we'll spend our leisure time. There are numberless ways for us to be creative, even geniuses.
If we value being alive, we will nurture those possibilities of genius within ourselves. But that means making some really important spiritual choices about how we're going to live our lives. It means not allowing ourselves to be so busy in just getting through the day that we won’t have any time or energy or spirit left to be open to those deeper things which are within us.
The Indian scholar Satish Kumar once wrote that "the artist's role is... to somehow be the bridge, or the instigator, for developing a sense of reverence and beauty [in the world]." As Kerry Mueller has written: "It doesn't matter if you're storytelling or dancing or painting or making music or planting a garden or preparing a meal for special friends or knitting a sweater.” We are constantly called upon to create those bridges of beauty and creativity in this world.
The psychologist Rollo May says that "Creativity is our yearning for immortality,’ and arises from our knowledge that we’re all going to die some day, It is our rage against death-- our insistence that our lives, as bordered and limited as they are, will have some deeper meaning, will reverberate further in the life of creation.
We can make our everyday lives works of art that touch others, that serve life, that bless the world in ways too numerous to count:
Lives of great [ones] all remind us
We can make our lives sublime
and departing leave behind us
footprints in the sands of time...
We can make our lives sublime
and departing leave behind us
footprints in the sands of time...
That means being aware of the world we live in-- open to the currents of life that are flowing within us and through us and among us.
It means being focused, disciplined, and passionate about those aspects of life we truly value.
It means letting go of our fear of making a mistake-- and daring to do something different-- daring to listen to one's own inner voice, even if that means the rest of the world be damned.
It means questioning our own assumptions, and looking at life from a new perspective from time to time, or looking from the same perspective, but more deeply, more discerningly, and more daringly.
Look deeper. Take risks. Do something different. Look at things a whole new way.
And enjoy— en-joy-- let joy in—while you’re doing it.
Perhaps then we call all become geniuses in our own way: builders of bridges between the human and the divine; instigators of reverence and beauty in the world; creative beasts; bards of our own inspired epics; singers of the blessed song of this remarkable human spirit.